Run, Betty run!

Even at 89, Betty Willis just keeps on running

Roxanne King

Twenty years ago, the Denver Catholic Register (now the Denver Catholic) featured a local 70-year-old who had recently run her 23rd marathon.

Betty Willis went on to finish four more marathons as well as numerous half-marathons, 10K and 5K runs. Set to turn 90 on Oct. 23, she plans to run a 5K on Oct. 7 to benefit her parish’s school, Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge.

“I ran in it last year,” Willis said about Sts. Peter and Paul’s Cool Duo race. Laughing she added, “I was 89 and I got first place in the 80 and older group—there wasn’t anyone else in my age group!”

That’s how it’s been since she started running in 1979 at age 52 when she competed in a 10K.

“I had never done a race before in my life,” Willis said. “I walked and ran and walked and ran. I finished next to last.

“Actually, I came in second place in my age group—50 and over,” she clarified. “There were only two of us.”

Two years later—after training—she participated in her first 26-mile marathon, placing first in her age group. She went on to compete in a total 27 marathons.

“I did 27 to honor my birth year, 1927,” Willis explained.

Her best marathon time? An impressive 3 hours, 55 minutes in 1985, which according to wellness website VeryWell, is 50 minutes less than the median marathon time for women of 4 hours, 45 minutes.

Her most memorable race? The Oct. 28, 2001, Marine Corps Marathon, which took place in Washington, D.C., just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was dedicated to those who died, the survivors and the first responders. Runners carried flags as they ran by the damaged Pentagon.

Betty Willis, 89, shows just a few of the medals shes’s acquired in her many years as a runner. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“That was the most patriotism I’d seen since World War II,” Willis recalled. “It was my favorite marathon.”

Born and reared in Springfield, Ill., Willis came to Denver in 1949 with just a small cardboard suitcase. She was 21 and on her way to San Francisco but needed to earn some money. She ended up finding a 39-year career with Security Life insurance. Starting as a file clerk, evenings she attended college and earned a degree in education and psychology. She retired from Security Life as an assistant vice president in 1988.

“I’ve had a very full life,” she said. “Lot’s of interesting things have happened!”

After retiring, Willis earned a master’s degree in Christian community development. She also completed the Catholic Biblical School’s four-year program. For 23 years, she directed the homebound ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul, where she’s been a 65-year parishioner.

Today, she still serves as a back-up extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and opens the door for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, which is convenient as she lives across the street from the church.

“Jesus has been my best friend for my whole life,” she said of her faith. “I’ve got through with help from the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who sent me good shepherds.”

A daily communicant for “many, many, many years,” Willis said simply of her dedicated Mass attendance: “You have to be close to the Lord. You have a reason to get up and get going, not just sit around.”

The same goes for her running habit.

When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits.”

“It’s good for your health—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “It keeps you agile and it’s a lot of fun. I run for all those reasons, and for the camaraderie with other runners.”

The benefits of running include slowing peripheral artery disease, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. She likes that runs benefit charitable causes and believes running has given her “bonus years.”

“I enjoy the challenge and just doing it,” Willis said. “I would really like to encourage older people to get off their duff and not shuffle their feet … to keep moving! They’ll be stronger and happier.”

These days, Willis limits herself to 5K races.

“When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits,” she said.

Willis is looking forward to Sts. Peter and Paul’s 5k as last year some of the school’s teaching nuns ran in full habits, and the pastor and many students participated. The same is planned for this year, which she praised.

“I especially want to congratulate all the children who will run,” she said.

Twenty years ago Willis expressed a desire to travel, to write and maybe finally move to San Francisco. Running has allowed her to make trips there, and to Alaska, Hawaii and Ireland. Currently she’s working on freeing up time to write.

And some days, the dream of moving to San Francisco, where she lived a year as a teen, beckons.

“I loved the ocean,” Willis said. “But it might be to Los Angeles because my parents are buried there and my brother (her sole living sibling out of four) lives there.

“I still have my one little cardboard suitcase I brought with me,” she said. “I still might continue that journey to California.”

STS. PETER & PAUL COOL DUO 5K
Benefits Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge
Sunday, Oct. 1, 8:30 a.m.
Info: www.coolduo5k.com

COMING UP: Local artists choose life in pro-life art show

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For someone who’s always been in love with art, it’s not surprising that Brett Lempe first encountered God through beauty. Lempe, a 25-year-old Colorado native, used his talent for art and new-found love of God to create a specifically pro-life art show after a planned show was cancelled because of Lempe’s pro-life views.

Lempe was “dried out with earthly things,” he said. “I was desperately craving God.”

Three years ago, while living in St. Louis, Mo., Lempe google searched for a church to visit and ended up at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

“I was captivated by the beauty of the 40 million mosaic tiles,” he said.

Lempe is not exaggerating. This Cathedral is home to 41.5 million tiles that make up different mosaics around the sanctuary. Witnessing the beauty of this church is what sparked his conversion, he said, and was his first major attraction towards Catholicism.

Lempe continued on to become Catholic, then quit his job several months after joining the Church to dedicate himself completely to art. Most of his work post-conversion is religious art.

Lempe planned to display a non-religious body of artwork at a venue for a month when his contact at the venue saw some of Lempe’s pro-life posts on Facebook. Although none of the artwork Lempe planned to display was explicitly pro-life or religious, the venue cancelled the show.

“I was a little bit shocked at first,” he said. “Something like me being against abortion or being pro-life would get a whole art show cancelled.”

Lempe decided to counter with his own art show, one that would be explicitly pro-life.

On Sept. 7, seven Catholic artists displayed work that gave life at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Denver.

“Catholicism lends itself to being life-giving,” Lempe said.

The show included a variety of work from traditional sacred art, icons, landscapes, to even dresses.

Students for Life co-hosted the event, and 10 percent of proceeds benefited the cause. Lauren Castillo, Development director and faith-based program director at Students for Life America gave the keynote presentation.

Castillo spoke about the need to be the one pro-life person in each circle of influence, with coworkers, neighbors, family, or friends. The reality of how many post-abortive women are already in our circles is big, she said.

“Your friend circle will get smaller,” Castillo said. “If one life is saved, it’s worth it.”

Pro-Life Across Mediums

Brett Lempe’s Luke 1:35

“This painting is the first half at an attempt of displaying the intensity and mystical elements of Luke 1:35,” Lempe said. “This work is influenced somewhat by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ painting as I try to capture the moment when the “New Adam” is conceived by Our Blessed Mother.”

Claire Woodbury’s icon of Christ Pantokrator

“I was having a difficult time making that icon,” she said. “I was thinking it would become a disaster.”

She felt Jesus saying to her, “This is your way of comforting me. Is that not important?”

“Icons are very important to me,” she said. “I guess they’re important to Him too.”

Katherine Muser’s “Goodnight Kisses”

“Kids naturally recognize the beauty of a baby and they just cherish it,” Muser said of her drawing of her and her sister as children.

Brie Shulze’s Annunciation

“There is so much to unpack in the Annunciation,” Schulze said. “I wanted to unpack that life-giving yes that our Blessed Mother made on behalf of all humanity.”

“Her yes to uncertainty, to sacrifice, to isolation, to public shame and to every other suffering that she would endure is what allowed us to inherit eternal life.”

“Her fiat was not made in full knowledge of all that would happen, but in love and total surrender to the will of God.”

All photos by Makena Clawson